Friday, December 06, 2013

Afghanistan: the 'Asian Roundabout'

The modern cities of Central Asia, with their sleek, glassy skyscrapers, are built upon the remains of some of the oldest cities in the world. While their appearance may have changed from the times when Zoroaster walked their dusty streets exalting the praises of Ahura Mazda, when Alexander's armies marched into the unknown, and when Marco Polo set off on his twenty-four year trip to the east, their raison d'etre, namely to facilitate the trade between the eastern and western peripheries of the Eurasian landmass, remains unchanged. Indeed, as the growth of these cities over the last twenty year seems to indicate, their importance as mile posts on a new Silk Road will only increase in the coming decades.

Marco Polo travels the Silk Road
The ruins of the ancient city of Balkh lie twenty kilometers north of the modern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Once an important stop on the main Silk Road, Balkh, and its modern apparition, Mazar-i-Sharif, are just two of the cities Afghan President Hamid Karzi hopes will become centerpieces in the new Silk Road. In remarks given at the 2010 Kabul Conference, President Karzi hoped Afghanistan would once again become an "Asian Roundabout" of trade and ideas due to its "location in the center of the new Silk Road." This phrase, of course, is taken from the famed Silk Road scholar Arnold Toynbee who called Afghanistan the "roundabout of the ancient world." Yet, it will require much work for Afghanistan to become the "Asian Roundabout."

For Afghanistan to truly become the center piece of a new Silk Road, it must build the infrastructure necessary to carry trade. Afghanistan lacks in road, rail and pipeline development. Afghanistan's main highway, the A01 is only a two lane road. Although part of the planned Asian Highway Network, the two lane A01 will choke traffic entering into Afghanistan. In addition to underdeveloped road networks, Afghanistan lacks in rail development. Similar to the Asian Highway Network, the Trans-Asian Railway Network, which plans to connect the states of Asia through railroads, has no plans to lay track in Afghanistan. Unlike many of the other states of Central Asia, Afghanistan has virtually no oil or natural gas resources to exploit. Pipeline construction in Afghanistan has consisted mainly of providing supply to NATO bases. Most planned Central Asian pipelines bypass Afghanistan, choosing instead to pass through Iran's more secure territory. 

The Trans-Asian Railway Network bypasses Afghanistan
Afghanistan's lack of infrastructure development is bedeviled by its lack of security. While the coming US draw down need not exacerbate Afghanistan's security problems, President Karzi's intransigence to completing a bilateral security agreement is not helping either. Any future US troop presence in Afghanistan will be to small to keep the peace in Afghanistan. The only way Karzi will be able to secure Afghanistan is by pacifying the Pathan Taliban resistance he faces in the southern half of the country. Bickering with the US is not helping this cause, and may indeed leave him without the money necessary to buy off the Taliban. The British bought security in Afghanistan during the 19th century by paying off the Pathans and Karzi can do the same now.

When Marco Polo traveled the Silk Road in the 13th century he did so with the blessings of Kublai Khan. The grandson of Genghis Khan and ruler of the Mongol Empire, Kublai Khan and his Mongol riders ensured the safety of travelers on the Silk Road. Much like how the US navy underwrites the safety of international maritime trade today, the Mongol Empire provided the security necessary for the Silk Road to flourish. While it is unlikely that another unitary empire will control all of central Asia, individual state security ought to be enough to ensure the rise of the modern Silk Road. If President Hamid Karzi truly hopes for Afghanistan to become the "Asian Roundabout" he must provided the security necessary to bring traders to his country's proud and ancient cities.    


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